Abraham Abulafia: A Starter Kit
ABULAFIA, ABRAHAM BEN SAMUEL (1240–after 1291), founder of the prophetic Kabbalah.
Born in Saragossa, Spain, Abulafia moved to Tudela in his childhood and studied with his father until the latter’s death in 1258. In 1260 he left Spain for the Land of Israel in search for the legendary Sambatyon river. However, the war between the Mongols and Mamluks in 1260 caused his return to Europe, via Greece. He studied in the early 1260s in Capua with R. Hillel of Verona, concentrating basically on the Guide of the Perplexed, and then returned to Spain.
In 1270 he began to study a particular kind of Kabbalah in Barcelona, whose most important representative was Barukh Togarmi, and received a revelation with messianic overtones. He soon left for Castile, where he disseminated his prophetic Kabbalah among figures like R. Moses of Burgos and R. Joseph Gikatilla.
Some time around 1275 he taught the Guide of the Perplexed and his Kabbalah in a few cities in Greece and in 1279 he made his way through Trani to Capua, where he taught four young students.
In the summer of 1280 he arrived in Rome and attempted to see the Pope Nicholas III in order to discuss his vision of Judaism as a mystical religion.
This meeting was part of a messianic scheme. However, the pope died suddenly and Abulafia was imprisoned for some weeks and then left for Messina, Sicily. There he was active for a decade (1281–91) and had several students as well as some in Palermo.
Around 1285 a polemic commenced between him and R. Solomon ben Abraham ibn Adret of Barcelona concerning Abulafia’s claims that he was a prophet and messiah. This controversy was one of the principal reasons for the exclusion of Abulafia’s Kabbalah from the Spanish schools.
Abulafia’s literary activity spans the years 1271–91 and consists of several dozen books, treatises on grammar, and poems. He wrote many commentaries: three on the Guide of the Perplexed:– Sefer ha-Geulah (1273), Sefer Hayyei ha-Nefesh, and Sefer Sitrei Torah (1280); on Sefer Yezirah: – Ozar Eden Ganuz, (1285/6), Gan Naul, and a third untitled; and a commentary on the Pentateuch:– Sefer-Maftehot ha-Torah (1289). More influential are his handbooks, teaching how to achieve the prophectic experience: Hayyei ha-Olam ha-Ba (1280), Or ha-Sekhel, Sefer ha-Heshek, and Imrei Shefer (1291). Of special importance for understanding his messianology are his “prophetic books” written between 1279 (Patras) and 1288 (Messina), where revelations including apocalyptic imagery and scenes are interpreted as pointing to spiritual processes of inner redemption.
The spiritualized understanding of the concepts of messianism and redemption as an intellectual development represents a major contribution of the messianic ideas in Judaism. As part of his messianic propensity, Abulafia become an intense disseminator of his Kabbalah, orally and in written form, trying to convince both Jews and Christians.
In his first treatises, Get ha-Shemot and Mafte’ah ha-Reayon, Abulafia describes a linguistic type of Kabbalah similar to the early writings of R. Joseph Gikatilla. In his later writings, the founder of prophetic Kabbalah produces a synthesis between Maimonides’ neoaristotelian understanding of prophecy as the result of the transformation of the intellectual influx into a linguistic message and techniques to reach such experiences by means of combinations of letters and their pronunciation, breathing exercises, contemplation of parts of the body, movements of the head and hands, and
concentration exercises. Some of the elements of those techniques stem from commentaries on Sefer Yezirah of Ashkenazi origin, while others reflect influences of Yoga, Sufism, and Hesychasm. He called his Kabbalah “the Kabbalah of Names,” that is, of divine names, being a way to reach what he called the prophetic experience, or “Prophetic Kabbalah”, as the ultimate aims of his way: unitive and revelatory experiences.
In his writings expressions of what is known as the unio mystica of the human and the supernal intellects may be discerned. Much less concerned with the theosophy of his contemporary kabbalists, who were interested in theories of ten hypostatic sefirot, some of which he described as worse than the Christian belief in the trinity, Abulafia depicted the supernal realm, especially the cosmic Agent Intellect, in linguistic terms, as speech and letters.
In his later books, Abulafia repeatedly elaborated upon a system of seven paths of interpretation, which he used sometimes in his commentary on the Pentateuch, which starts with the plain sense, includes also allegorical interpretation, and culminates in interpretations of the discrete letters, the latter conceived of as the path to prophecy. Abulafia developed a sophisticated theory of language, which assumes that Hebrew represents not so much the language as written or spoken as the principles of all languages, namely the ideal sounds and the combinations between them. Thus, Hebrew as an ideal language emcompasses all the other languages. This theory of language might have influenced Dante Alighieri. In his writings Abulafia uses Greek, Latin, Italian, Arabic, Tatar, and Basconian words for purpose of gematria.
Abulafia’s Kabbalah inspired a series of writings which can be described as part of his prophetic Kabbalah, namely, as striving to attain extreme forms of mystical experiences.The most important among them are the anonymous Sefer ha-Zeruf (translated into Latin for Pico), Sefer Ner Elohim, and Sefer Shaarei Zedek by R. Nathan ben Saadiah Harar, who influenced the Kabbalah of R. Isaac of Acre. The impact of Abulafia is evident in an anonymous epistle attributed to Maimonides; R. Reuven Zarfati, a kabbalist active in 14t. century Italy; Abraham Shalom, Johanan Alemanno, Judah Albotini, and Joseph ibn Zagyah; Moses Cordovero and Hayyim Vital’s influential Shaarei Kedushah; Shabbetai Zevi, Joseph Hamiz, Phinehas Elijah Horowitz, and Menahem Mendel of Shklov.
Extant in many manuscripts, Abulafia’s writings were not printed by kabbalists, most of whom banned his brand of Kabbalah, and only by chance introduced in their writings a few short and anonymous fragments. Scholarship started with an analysis of his manuscript writings by M.H. Landauer, who attributed the book of the Zohar to him. A. Jellinek refuted this attribution and compiled the first comprehensive list of Abulafia’s writings, publishing three of Abulafia’s shorter treatises (two epistles, printed in 1853/4, and Sefer ha-Ot in 1887), while Amnon Gross, published 13 volumes, which include most of Abulafia’s books and those of his students’ books (Jerusalem, 1999–2004). Major contributions to the analysis of Abulafia’s thought and that of his school have been made by Gershom Scholem and Chaim Wirszubskii, Moshe Idel and Elliot Wolfson. Some of Abulafia’s treatises were translated into Latin and Italian in the circle of Pico della Mirandola, mostly by Flavius Mithridates, and Pico’s vision of Kabbalah was significantly influenced by his views. This is the case also with Francesco Giorgio Veneto’s De Harmonia Mundi.
Abulafia’s life inspired a series of literary works such poems by Ivan Goll, Moses Feinstein, and Nathaniel Tarn; Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum; and a George-Elie Bereby’s play; in art, Abraham Pincas’s paintings and Bruriah Finkel’s sculptures; and several musical pieces.
Amidst the rich panoply of Jewish Kabbalah, Abraham Abulafia resonates the most with modern, philosophically minded seekers of direct mystical experience. Here is a selection of essential texts on Abulafia's method of Jewish meditation to help those interested in exploring this path.
Note: You can download the Abulafia meditation mp3s by clicking on 'All Files: HTTP'
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